A freshly laundered shirt, covered in plastic, flaps in the wind as it takes flight from in front of Manayunk Cleaners in Philadelphia.
It wasn’t picked up by a breeze, though, rather a remote-controlled drone, which ferries the shirt across the sky on a delivery run to a nearby customer.
“I’m all about technology and I see a lot of these cleaners, it’s so old school. You come in…and you just pick it up. I needed to spice things up,” says Manayunk Cleaners owner Harout Vartanian.
The 24-year-old, who’s trying to attract a young clientele at his Main Street shop that opened last September, converted a four-bladed DJI Phantom quadracopter, designed for taking aerial photography, into a dry cleaning delivery machine.
“We fly it to your house, it makes a noise, you pick it up and that’s that,” Vartanian says. “We posted a video to YouTube and it went viral. And ever since then, people have been asking ‘Hey, can you deliver my clothes by drone?’”
It takes two people -- a spotter and pilot -- to complete a delivery. The drone is launched from the sidewalk and once airborne, the clothes are attached to a makeshift hanging clip. Then, with clothes securely attached, the drone heads for its destination. But since the drone is small, it’s limited in how far it can go and much can be delivered in one trip.
“Right now, this particular model can only carry one to two pounds,” Vartanian said. He says that equates to a shirt or two. “There’s a higher-end model that we haven’t purchased yet, but obviously in the future that’s what we’re going to use. It carries around 5-10 pounds.”
So far they’ve focused the drone deliveries on customers from nearby businesses to log some flight hours, according to Vartanian.
Tim Nedzwecky had clean towels for his dog grooming business, The Groom Room, flown over. He calls the service “awesome.” Asked whether he’s concerned the towels might get dirty on their flight, Nedzwecky says no.
“I think that if something happens, they’ll fix it,” Nedzwecky said.
Next, Vartanian says they’ll randomly select one customer a month to have their clothes delivered by air for free. Then he hopes to expand the program and deploy a fleet of drones to deliver clothes to all customers.
While the drone deliveries are not exactly practical, they do get attention.
People often stop to look at the device flying high over Main Street, sometimes nearly a dozen at a time.
“It’s pretty crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. I was wondering what the hell that was, to be honest,” said Trish Pasquarello. The 24-year-old said she’d try drone delivery because it would be easier than having to carry her clothes.
“It’s just something fun to watch,” says Bruce Cook. The contractor, who’s working on a project across the street from the cleaners, said he’s been watching the drone test flights for some time.
“It’s a novelty, it’s pretty cool, it’s cute, all that, but it’s not practical,” he said. “What would have been better, would have been if there had been a tractor-trailer coming down and met it.”
The use of drones in the American skies has been a hot topic of debate, as of late. Currently, drone use by commercial operators falls into a grey area. The Federal Aviation Administration bars people or businesses for operating a drone – or as they call them, Unmanned Aircraft Systems -- for compensation or hire.
The FAA also requires operators to obtain an airworthiness certificate to operate a drone. But that may change. Congress has required the FAA to develop guidelines for commercial drone use by 2015. The guidelines would give businesses a way to use drones for profit.
Vartanian doesn't think his drone falls under the FAA guidelines. He insists it's “just a toy” and is being used as a way to promote his business.
“It’s amazing. It’s something new, it’s definitely a step towards the future," he said. "[Customers] have never seen anything like this and hopefully they’ll get used to it because that's what we’ll plan on doing.”